Joseph Rubin’s latest exercise, “The Ottoman Lieutenant,” would seem to have all the elements of a classic melodrama – a love triangle set against the backdrop of the dawn of World War I. Unfortunately, “The Ottoman Lieutenant” left me underwhelmed. I suppose part of the problem is that Jeff Stockwell’s screenplay is just so darn predictable.
When a young idealistic nurse (Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar) meets a young doctor who saves lives in a small oppressed Ottoman village (Josh Hartnett), it would appear to be love at first sight. Lillie Rowe (the nurse) follows Jude (the doctor) to his mission/hospital, and is initially rejected by the gruff head doctor, Garrett Woodruff (Ben Kingsley, in a bit of casting as foreseeable as anything else in this film). Lillie must prove her medical worth to Dr. Woodruff, while simultaneously falling for Turkish Lieutenant Ismail, played by Dutch actor Michiel Huisman (of “Game of Thrones” fame).
Much to his displeasure, Ismail is assigned to escort Lillie from Istanbul to the outback mission. Over the course of their journey, his opinion softens – particularly when she saves him from a band of Turkish thieves. Still, it’s never certain as to why these two fall for one another in the first place. I believe the screenplay wants to make a point that love is blind – that an American Christian and a Turkish Muslim can fall in love. I get that. But there has to be a deeper attraction than mere plot convenience. Furthermore, it’s not clear why her attraction to Jude is never fulfilled. Did he do something to discourage her? If so, that scene must have ended up on the cutting room floor.
As the First World War begins to encompass the region, Ismail must lead some of his fellow compatriots on military missions to fight the Armenians, aided by the Russian Army. I realize these guerilla-style skirmishes are not on the scale of the Normandy invasion, but even what should have been the most exciting scenes are rendered disappointing. I liken these gun battles to those of Terry George’s 2004 classic “Hotel Rwanda.” Remember how everyday life was interrupted by startling attacks? Remember how some of the scenes were scarier than anything in actual horror movies? I expected that kind of jolt in “The Ottoman Lieutenant.” Instead, Rubin and Stockwell give us a couple by-the-numbers battle scenes that failed to wake the man in the seat next to me.
While Hera Hilmar is very good as the female lead, the rest of the performances feel “mailed in.” It’s as though everyone showed up for work one day with every line memorized; every scene was then shot, paychecks were dispersed, and everyone went home. The love scene between Lillie and Ismail is handled delicately and professionally, even if the greater love story is not.
But my biggest complaint with “The Ottoman Lieutenant” is the fact that the screenplay glosses over the Armenian genocide committed by the Ottoman Turks, with the backing of the German Army. Hilmar’s voice-over narration mentions in passing that the Ottomans sided with the Germans and the Armenians sided with the Russians, but no judgement is ever passed one way or the other. The Turkish government continues to deny the slaughter of 1.5 million innocent Armenians, and “The Ottoman Lieutenant” does nothing to rectify the government’s reticence. I’m not asking for blood and guts here. (I don’t like to have to turn my face away from the screen.) But for this picture to work as an accurate historical melodrama, the genocide simply must be its backdrop. Instead we have an ambiguous “war” setting, which could be transferred to any war at any time in world history. This would be like “Saving Private Ryan” without acknowledging that the Nazis were the enemy.
Much as I simply could not recommend “Selma” for the gross historical inaccuracy of Lyndon Johnson’s opposition to Civil Rights, I am unable to recommend “The Ottoman Lieutenant” (if for no other reason) than its gross historical inaccuracy of the depiction of the Armenians and Turks as equally responsible for providing patients for the medical mission. One of these days, I’d love to see a Turkish film (or Turkish/American film, in this case) which honestly details the atrocities of its former rulers. The Nazis have been portrayed as ruthless killers in German films; and Lord knows, Hollywood has dealt openly with the horror of Viet Nam. When the Turks are ready to deal with the Armenian Genocide, I’m ready to watch!